Arizona State has won 20 games over the last two seasons and has finished as a top 25 team in back-to-back years under coach Todd Graham. And even with a few losses on both sides of the ball, the Sun Devils should be in contention for the Pac-12 South title once again in 2015. Quarterback Mike Bercovici should have a breakout year in his first as the starter, while the defense will be an aggressive group with seven returning starters.
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Previewing Arizona State’s Offense for 2015
Usually, when a team replaces a three-year starter at quarterback, there’s going to be a drop-off. But that’s not the case at ASU. In three relief starts last year, Mike Bercovici proved he could be an elite quarterback; he has a strong arm and shows great leadership. He’s not as mobile as predecessor Taylor Kelly, so the Sun Devils will tweak their offense to suit his skills.
ASU will lean more on its running game, and it has the horses to do so, with three backs — Demario Richard, two-way player Kalen Ballage and speedster Gump Hayes — capable of doing damage. Going to the ground first also makes sense, because the two big question marks on offense most affect the passing game. ASU has to replace both of its starting tackles, and the wide receiver position has been decimated with Jaelen Strong going to the NFL and Cameron Smith sidelined the entire season after knee surgery. D.J. Foster, now a full-time slot receiver after splitting time between tailback/receiver the last three seasons, will be Bercovici’s No. 1 target. The Sun Devils picked up a late addition in the spring in UCLA transfer Devin Lucien, which gives Bercovici another proven target.
Previewing Arizona State’s Defense for 2015
ASU lost a couple of key players in defensive lineman Marcus Hardison and safety Damarious Randall, but coach Todd Graham has recruited so well that replacements should be able to step right in.
The strength of the defense is the back seven. ASU can rotate five linebackers without much drop-off. Keep an eye on sophomores Christian Sam and DJ Calhoun; they were pressing for starting positions in spring ball and have the sideline-to-sideline quickness Graham loves at the position.
ASU returns three starters in the secondary, and James Johnson will help negate the loss of Randall.
If there’s a concern, it’s the lack of a true pass rusher up front. Four-star junior college recruit Davon Durant was plugged in to be the Devil-backer — primarily a pass-rusher in ASU’s scheme — but he was suspended indefinitely following an arrest on allegations of domestic abuse.
Graham won’t back off despite the lack of an elite pass-rushing threat. Instead, he’ll dial up a variety of blitzes to try to keep quarterbacks guessing. It’s a dangerous gambit — Oregon State had three touchdowns of at least 35 yards in its 35–27 victory over the Devils last year — but Graham will remain aggressive. It’s who he is and how he coaches.
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Previewing Arizona State’s Specialists for 2015
The kicking game will be solid with punter Matt Haack and placekicker Zane Gonzalez, but the mission for new special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum is to improve the return game, which has been a disaster for ASU. The answer might be Hayes, who terrorized the defense in practices leading up to last year’s Sun Bowl. Hayes has the speed and natural running instincts to be a threat every time he touches the ball.
In three seasons Graham has turned an underachieving program into one that regularly cranks out 10-win seasons. This year should be no different. ASU returns 12 starters, and that number doesn’t include Bercovici. There are some worries — most notably at wide receiver and offensive tackle — but the Sun Devils have the talent and the coaching to contend for the Pac-12 title.
The schedule is daunting, particularly early in the season. ASU opens against Texas A&M in Houston, and three of its first four conference games are USC, at UCLA and at Utah. But if the Sun Devils can somehow come out of that stretch with just one conference loss, they will be in great shape to win the Pac-12 South. Three of their final five games are at home, and the only road contests are against California and Washington State.